Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield ) is an orphan boy living a secret life in the walls of a Paris train station in the early 1900s. When Hugo encounters a broken automaton, an eccentric girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), and the cold reserved man (Ben Kingsley) who runs the toy shop, he is caught up in a fantastic adventure that could put all of his secrets in jeopardy.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a near-masterpiece, a dazzling, magical mix of fantasy, drama and whimsy, enhanced by the most eye-popping and inventive rendering of 3D since James Cameron’s Avatar.
So why hasn’t the film based on Brian Selznick's 2007 book The Invention of Hugo Cabret been embraced by US audiences despite mostly lavish praise from the critics? I don’t know, although one commentator unkindly labeled it as a '$120 million borderline art film aimed at families," and I bet the filmmaker is puzzled why his most personal film earned just $US41 million in its first month in the US.
It would be a shame if Australian audiences don’t respond warmly to an immaculately made film which works on multiple levels: an affecting story of a lonely orphan who craves companionship and a sense of belonging; a fantastical mystery with elements of slapstick comedy revolving around Sacha Baron Cohen’s character and a Doberman; and an ode to the dawn of cinema represented chiefly by French pioneer Georges Méliès.
Scripted by John Logan (The Aviator, Rango and the upcoming Coriolanus), the film is alternately captivating, poignant, funny and moving.
From the opening scene as the camera swoops over nocturnal Paris of the 1930s, through a bustling railway station and along a platform, Scorsese signals we’re about to embark on a wholly original adventure.
The camera alights on 12-year-old Hugo, (Asa Butterfield), an orphan who lives in the station’s innards tending its clocks, a task he inherited from his drunken uncle (Ray Winstone) who had disappeared. Via flashbacks, we learn that Hugo’s father (Jude Law) died in a fire.
Hugo’s passion is to repair an automaton robot that his dad had been working on, a quest which brings him into contact with Georges (Ben Kingsley), a curmudgeonly old guy who runs a toy booth in the station, and Georges’ effervescent god daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), a fellow orphan. Hugo spends much of his time dodging the station’s officious inspector (Baron Cohen), who delights in rounding up stray kids and sending them to the orphanage.
Eventually Hugo discovers the gruff toy seller is Méliès, the once-famous director of hundreds of movies including 1902’s A Trip to the Moon (stunning recreated by Scorsese and his visual effects team) who had fallen into obscurity.
Despite the fantastical elements, key plot points are historically accurate. The French Army confiscated hundreds of the original prints of Méliès' films to make boot heels for shoes. After losing control of his Montreuil studio, he did burn the negatives of his films as well as sets and costumes. And he did make a meagre living selling toys and confectionery at Montparnasse station in Paris.
Butterfield is a little wooden at times but, blessed with large, expressive eyes, he mostly registers effectively as a plucky boy who finally finds the connection he was longing for. His scenes with the delightful Moretz are charming and his rapport with Kingsley as Méliès reputation and dignity are restored is endearing.
Baron Cohen’s seemingly villainous inspector is humanised through his awkward dealings with a flower vendor deftly played by Emily Mortimer. Christopher Lee, Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Griffiths and Frances de la Tour contribute memorable cameos.
There are a few other minor flaws. The chase scenes involving the kid and the clumsy inspector (who hobbles due to a leg injury suffered in WW1) are over-extended. The momentum sags slightly in the middle section involving the puzzle of the automaton and tighter editing could have shaved 15 minutes or so from the running time.
But these are mere quibbles set against Scorsese’s inspired direction, Robert Richardson’s luminous cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s sumptuous production design and Howard Shore's delicate score.
The final reel is infused with Scorsese’s abiding love of cinema, featuring snippets of films by the Lumière brothers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
The ending delivers a significant emotional pay-off.